By LYNETTE HAALAND
Four Points News
A handful of Steiner Ranch homeowners are accused of cutting down nearly 200 trees in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which borders the eastern side of the community.
“Currently, there are five homeowners with open issues regarding the BCP,” said Jonathan Garriss, president of the Steiner Ranch Master Association board.
The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve has notified these residents and issued damage assessments ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 per household. Garriss shared at the January 17 SRMA board meeting that the combined fines total $127,000.
The number of trees and ages of the trees that were cut down in the BCP varied, but the worst situation was 74 trees, with some of those trees being 100-years-old, Garriss said. Some other properties had 24 trees of various ages and types. But, in total, it was probably close to 200 trees.
“It’s impossible to prove exactly who did what when,” Garriss said. “We had a homeowner attend our last board meeting that was one of the homes that is accused of cutting in the preserve and the HOA is working with them to resolve their situation.”
It is illegal to cut down trees in the preserve, which protects the habitat for two migratory songbirds: golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo, among other species.
“We’re obligated to protect the preserve,” Garriss said.
It was voted on and approved at the January meeting that SRMA will go forward with a new policy for BCP remediation to erect a fence to help protect areas that were damaged.
“We don’t have the full specs of the fence yet, but it will certainly be taller than 6 feet,” Garriss said. “Fencing will only be erected in areas where damage was done and where the homeowner claims no knowledge of how it happened. The goal is to protect the area while we work with the BCP on repairs. We will communicate repeatedly with affected homeowners before any fencing is installed.”
The SRMA board also talked about mounting cameras to monitor plantings so this doesn’t happen again.
“We appear to be most effective by helping homeowners understand the issue and developing a proposal to remedy,” Garriss said.
The HOA is assisting the BCP to remedy and repair the damage. The HOA is working with the homeowners and the BCP in hopes of getting the homeowner fines more in line with remediation.
“If the HOA does nothing, the BCP will probably cut off access to the trails that they provide residents. We don’t want to lose access to a large number of trails,” Garriss said. “The HOA can pay those fines which currently are $127,000 but the HOA is not a big fan of bailing out a handful of homeowners.”
At this time, the HOA will not pay the damages on behalf of those homeowners, however, if the HOA can help with tree planting and security using recovered funds, it will do that, Garriss said.
Recovered funds are when Steiner Ranch collects money from homeowners for BCP damages, the community retains those funds to be used exclusively for the benefit of the preserve, Garris explained. The SRMA coordinates with the BCP staff for approved uses of those funds. Historically, those funds have been used to repair damage in the BCP as well as maintain the trails in the preserve. If a homeowner reaches a resolution with the BCP directly, then those funds do not come to the HOA. Homeowners can choose either path to resolve claims by the BCP for damages in the preserve.
Joe Iannello, SRMA board member, wants to make sure homeowners are educated about the BCP.
“We need to better educate homeowners and make sure they understand there is a hefty fine and this is a serious issue,” said Iannello, who was added to the board when former president Chris Langevin resigned in late October.
The SRMA has had issues with residents and the BCP in the past. In September 2020, this message was shared: “We are unfortunately continuing to see illegal trespass, tree-cutting, and dumping on the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve at Steiner Ranch. These are serious actions that damage habitat and may increase community wildfire risk. They could also result in civil or criminal penalties, including federal prosecution under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, fines, and/or jail time. These penalties can be very costly, with some recent violations estimated up to $60,000 in damages.”
Garriss said that the HOA will be working with BCP to send education twice a year to remind residents of the rules with the BCP.
“As we understand the scope of repair and how we can help the BCP accomplish it, we will refine our process to resolve the other open issues and inform residents about not doing more damage in the preserve,” Garriss said.
“We need to preserve the access for Steiner residents to have access to the (BCP) trails,” Garriss said.
Balcones Canyonlands Preserve
The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) is one of the nation’s largest urban preserves, protecting more than 32,000 acres of endangered species habitat. It is a system of preserves managed by a diverse group of public and private partners; the majority is managed by Travis County and the City of Austin.
About 3,500 acres of the BCP is regularly open to the public. Several of the trails established in Steiner Ranch go through the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve: J-Canyon, Powerline Hill, and Eastridge trails.
Trails on the BCP can only be accessed at the approved trailheads, which are marked with green signs installed by the SRMA. Users must stay on the approved trails at all times.
The BCP was created in 1996 to protect habitat for eight endangered species: two migratory songbirds called the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo, and six karst invertebrates found in caves. The black-capped vireo was removed from the federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in May 2018. The BCP continues to provide habitat for this rare bird as well as the seven still-endangered species and 27 species of concern found on the preserve.
The BCP protects rare and endangered wildlife and also provides recreational trails for Steiner residents. The preserve was created to off-set the removal of habitat when Steiner Ranch and other parts of western Travis County were developed, so it is especially important that the remaining habitat be protected.
Cutting vegetation, dumping materials such as landscape trimmings, draining swimming pools into the preserve, and building forts or other structures on the BCP are illegal. Any use of fire on the BCP at Steiner Ranch, including smoking, is strictly prohibited.
Travis County natural resources staff routinely patrols the BCP, and while no one wants it to reach this point, legal action can be taken when the law is broken.